In today’s episode I have the absolute pleasure of speaking to Canden Arciniega, my good friend and former boss, who is the co-owner and COO of Free Tours by Foot, a ‘name your own price’ walking tour company that operates in more than a dozen cities around the US and Europe. I actually got my start in the travel industry with Free Tours by Foot back in 2012 as a tour guide in Washington, DC, so this episode is especially dear to my heart.
Canden shares how name your own price tours work, including the major benefits and challenges of running this type of business. We’ll also learn about the game changing strategy Free Tours by Foot used to increase bookings from 2k per month in 2011 to over 70k per month in the lead up to COVID-19.
Now unfortunately there was an issue with my mic at the very start of the recording, so I wasn’t able to capture the first few minutes of me welcoming Canden onto the show and us chatting about our adventures in DC. However, the good news is that this means she’ll need to come back for another future episode so we can finally share the story of the phantom snake attack from our 6 day cycle ride from DC to Pittsburgh. But the even better news is that the content of this episode is especially good and super actionable.
If you’re interested in starting a walking tour company or you’re looking to expand your current company into different locations, or if you’d like to learn how to diversify your income (because as Canden reveals, there are many other ways to make money as a walking tour business, beyond just through tour bookings) then definitely tune in. Plus at the end she shares some incredible productivity hacks, so make sure you stick around for that. Honestly, she is the most well organized and highly productive person I know, so you definitely won’t want to miss her tips.
So, without further adieu, my professional mentor and very good friend, Canden Arciniega of Free Tours by Foot:
Getting started with Free Tours By Foot
After living in London for several years, Canden Arciniega and her to soon-to-be husband relocated to Washington, DC in 2011. Armed with multiple degrees in history, she applied to become a tour guide in the nation’s capital and quickly fell in love with guiding.
When she first started with Free Tours by Foot, it was a tiny company operating exclusively in Washington, DC. Canden saw big opportunities for growth, so when the owner offered her a partnership, she jumped at the chance.
Under her leadership, the company expanded to dozens of cities across the US and Europe, including New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago, Charleston, Boston, San Francisco, London, and Berlin.
Today the company averages an astonishing 72,000 bookings each month — a far cry more than the 2,000 bookings it averaged when Canden first joined in 2011. She talks us through that journey, and the specific strategies they used to grow the Free Tours by Foot empire.
Understanding the ‘name your own price’ business model
The Free Tours by Foot business model is simple — guests pay the guide what they think the tour was worth at the end. Though most people do pay, there is no minimum fee or expectation. The amount of money the guide earns is completely dependent on how much each guest gives.
As a result, guides have a real incentive to always strive to deliver the best possible experience. This makes quality control easy to manage. Canden explains, “because it’s a name your own price tour, if the guides not good, the guides not going to get any money, and if the guide isn’t going to get any money, they aren’t going to stick around.”
In turn, guides pay Free Tours by Foot a ‘marketing fee’ after each tour. This fee is referred to as such because every guide develops their own tour.
There is an official start and end point, and some unmissable stops along the way, but otherwise the content is completely unique to each guide. “A tour is very much a guides own work. We just market their tour.”
The strategy that increased total revenue and skyrocketed monthly bookings
Over time, Free Tours by Foot began to focus on creating travel guides and resources. “Our main goal is to provide… everything you need to plan a trip to any city we could think of”.
This content marketing strategy was extremely effective in bringing more people to their website. It also boosted revenue as many of the pages included affiliate links.
Canden emphasizes that though they earn a commission through some of the affiliate links, all their recommendations are genuine. “I do feel very strongly that we shouldn’t recommend things unless we think they’re actually worth it.”
Not only did affiliate marketing help to diversify their income, but it also increased the number of people booking tours. The average monthly bookings skyrocketed from 2,000 in 2011 to 72,000 in 2020 — a colossal increase that Canden believes is largely due to their content marketing strategy.
Challenges with free walking tours
Of course, when offering free tours you always run the risk that some guests won’t pay anything. Canden emphasizes, “that is very much their right” and there “are many factors that influence how much someone thinks a tour is worth.”
Additionally, because ‘name your own price’ tours are less well known in the US than Europe, sometimes people think they must be of a lesser quality than paid tours. However, all Free Tours by Foot guides are licensed, and many hold degrees in history or other related subjects.
However, thankfully that opinion has shifted over the years as people have become more familiar with what Free Tours by Foot has to offer. “Everyone now realizes that we are great guides and we take this seriously and this is our career, we’re just choosing to do it in a different way.”
How Free Tours by Foot has pivoted during COVID-19
Like many other tours companies, they have been focused on producing virtual tours. Though they aren’t profitable, they have been profitable and fun to make. Ultimately, Canden hopes that virtual tours will help keep her company top of mind.
They are also temporarily offering ticketed tours rather than free tours to help the guides receive a more stable income. “They’ve been out of work for so many months… we want to guarantee them some payment and name your own price tours were too much of a risk to take. Our guides are really great and we want to make sure we support them.”
Lastly, they have also been promoting tours to local residents. Since so few people are traveling at the moment, it seems like a good time to encourage people to rediscover the city they live in.
More from this episode
Want to know the other strategy Canden attributes to their massive increase in bookings? What are the productivity hacks she swears by to manage so many things at once? Press play to learn more from this incredible leader in the walking tour industry.